Training ~ Feet ("Printer Friendly" version of this page)
You "own" your horse's feet. We mean this in the context that when you ask our horses to do something with their feet, you should expect them to comply. When the horse is out on their own or in the herd, the feet are theirs. While you are sitting on your horse, if you were to ask your horse to pick up any foot and move it - could you? Can you pick up your horse's feet on the ground and set them down without getting into a struggle? How does your horse behave with the farrier? These are all extremely important things. The movement of the horse's feet are directly related to how the horse thinks about any given situation. If your horse is not comfortable in his mind, he'll be braced/resistant or the flight response is likely to take over and you won't be working with the horse, you'll be working against him.
On the Ground
We start by getting the horse used to the rope around their foot by "flicking" the rope (rope skills) at "their" feet and desensitizing to the feel of the rope. You don't want to swing the rope at them and hit them with it and you aren't trying to rope your horse either. The idea is to softly present the rope to the horse so that he doesn't become afraid of things that you are going to do to his feet. Be prepared when working with a colt, they probably aren't going to be too keen about the idea of the rope near "their" feet and may strike out or kick. This is one of the safest ways to do this. You can stay out of harms way and get a lot accomplished.
A training stick is also a useful tool to get the horse used to the idea of something foreign touching the foot. You can start by standing back 4-5 feet and presenting the training stick to the horse for inspection - let him see it and smell it if necessary. Don't just throw the stick on the foot and expect the horse to stand there quietly. You have to work up to this just like everything else.
On the ground, we start by picking up each foot with a lead rope and placing it somewhere else -- it really doesn't matter where. You could also have someone hold your horse with a halter/lead and use any soft rope for this exercise. You can even just pick it up and set it back down in the same spot. Notice from this picture that I am standing about 3 feet off the horse's shoulder -- out of harms way if something were to go wrong you aren't going to be underneath the horse. We want to the horse to understand that we can move "their" feet. Remember, these feet belong to us and we can do what we want with them, the horse just may not believe this yet. We work on each foot with this technique until we can easily (softly) move them. It doesn't matter which feet you start with, but the end result should be that you can pick up the foot and move it with about an ounce of pressure (pull in this case) on the rope.
We then move on to picking up each foot by hand. You're probably thinking "big deal, I pick up my horses feet all the time!" When asking for a foot you don't want to the horse to anticipate and give you it's foot until you ask. There are numerous ways to do this; we like to start by asking for the front foot and slightly pushing the horse off balance (at the shoulder with our body or shoulder) a bit to adjust their weight to the other three feet at the same time. This gets them used to the idea that they need to adjust themselves to you. Make sure you reward the horse for doing what you asked. Even something this simple justifies a reward, how else is the horse going to know that it did what you asked? After we get the horse to adjust its weight when we ask for a foot, we start working on a cue for the horse to release the weight off it's foot and let you pick it up. Again, don't let the horse anticipate you and lift their foot prematurely. We like to hold the hoof and ask for the foot with a little upward pressure (following a feel). There are other cues that you can use, we just like this one.
We have a friend with a bad back who can't lean over very far to pick out her horse's feet. Her horse is trained to a cue of pressing below the shoulder or rump with her thumb. It's not what we would do in an ideal situation, but this person has adapted the horse to her situation, not vice versa. Remember to reward your horse when they do what you want to reinforce the behavior you are after.
It's very important to get the horse to "softly" release their foot off the ground and let you hold it without any resistance or bracing. Hold the hoof at the end of the toe, you have more leverage here than if you held at the fetlock or anywhere on the leg. Practice tapping on the bottom of the hoof with a pick or piece of wood, simulate cleaning the hoof, trimming, and shoeing. Try to bring the hoof through your legs and hold it like a farrier would do, this gets the horse used to being off balance and ready for that day when the farrier starts to work.
One of the most important steps is placing the foot back on the ground. DO NOT DROP THE FOOT, place it back on the ground. Place the toe on the ground first, as if the horse were going to walk on the very tip of their hoof. This reinforces the concept of "ownership" of the feet to the horse. You placed the foot down where you wanted it in the manner that you chose. Don't let the horse anticipate the release and put weight on the foot before you have placed it on the ground. You need to be careful and not get into a battle with the horse, but you also can't let them think that they don't have to listen to you. If you have problems releasing the foot, try holding it firmly for 5 seconds, then 10, then 20 until you can place the foot back on the ground without any resistance. This is more important than you could believe!
Once we feel comfortable with the horse and our "ownership" of his feet we move on to getting comfortable with different surfaces. This may sound strange, but we have worked with horses that were afraid to step from asphalt to concrete because the surfaces were different colors and textures. There are a lot of horses that are afraid to stand in water -- how long would a horse like this survive in the wild?
In the saddle
As part of our groundwork training, we train the horse to move any foot that we ask for. We want to move each foot independently. This sounds like a daunting task, but it's relatively easy. This is really useful when you're out on the trail and need to maneuver in tight spaces. We have been out in the forest where logs and branches are down and since we can move the feet, we have the ability to pick our way through the debris. Whether you're doing dressage or trail riding, you can use this skill.
You are going to teach the horse that the rein is connected to each foot depending on how you ask. We start by asking for a front foot (it doesn't matter which one) to step over -- you only want that foot to move. Hold the rein out to the side like you would ask for a bend, but a bit higher with a little pressure. The horse will search for what you are asking - he may even get lucky and move the foot you are after right away! More likely though, the horse will understand that you are waiting for something and give you a try and eventually move the correct foot. This may take a long time, which requires a huge amount of patience on your part. Remember, this may take some time and you must have the patience to follow through. This is where reward is so important with the horse, make sure you reward this behavior when the horse moves the foot. This concept is discussed in detail on our Training - Reins pages.
When you are riding your horse, practice riding over the tarp and other different surfaces. All of this will help build the bond between you and your horse.
There's a lot more to the horses feet than this, but this is a good place to start. It's important how the horse moves his feet when you ask either with an exercise or from pressure. A horse that moves his feet with quick "flight response" like movement is probably moving it's feet out of fear which tells you that this horse would likely move over or through you to get out of a bad situation. A horse that drags it's feet is merely going through the motions with a lack of focus on you!
There is some risk involved in horse training for both you and the horse. Horses can cause serious injury. Be sensible and dont attempt anything that is outside your comfort level. This information is intended to illustrate how we apply our training techniques, you are responsible for using this information wisely. If you dont feel comfortable with your abilities or an exercise, dont do it! Seek advice or assistance from a professional horse trainer. Stay on the "high side of trouble".
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Updated Sept. 2012